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Obstacles on the Road

Problems abounded in the August election, and the fallout may affect November voting as well.

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"We got started on a rough, rough road," acknowledged county Election Commission chairman Greg Duckett at a post-election meeting last week. Duckett and his colleagues were there to take stock of the fallout from the August 3rd election and the prospects for countywide voting on November 7th.

That was some days after an interview with the Flyer (see article below) in which Duckett and Election Commission executive director James Johnson expressed relative optimism about this year's election process, relegating the various issues that have come up to the realm of politics as usual. That was before last week's meeting. Upon further review ...

There is the matter of the official precinct-totals lists, which commission members, along with everybody else, have acknowledged are virtually unreadable.

There is the matter of impounded machines, voting cards, and other paraphernalia that cannot be reprogrammed or made ready for the next round of election activity in October -- when early voting in November's general election begins -- until legal challenges from defeated candidates in the just-concluded August election are disposed of.

There is the matter of judicial oversight for the candidate appeals that, as of early this week and with the clock ticking, had not yet been arranged.

There is the matter of election software that didn't work as advertised. There is the matter of early-voting ballots that gave voters ballot choices that were wrong for the districts they lived in. There is the matter of an out-sourced contract for handling and transportation of election machines that commissioners have started to think is needlessly expensive and inefficiently managed. And there is the matter of late-reporting boxes that changed winners to losers and which proved to have been "in-house" along with the county's other boxes but were unaccounted for until the final few minutes of the counting process.

Considering that much of the last year's local political news concerned a special state Senate election that had to be voided because, among other things, dead people were discovered to have voted, there is little wonder that skepticism about the voting process reigns among much of the electorate.

Besides the four losing Democratic endorsees who have formally appealed the results of the August 3rd countywide election results, there are activists who see larger, more endemic problems with the election process and are on the case, it would seem, to stay.

There are the likes of Dr. Yahweh (formerly Sweet Willie Wine) and Warren Cole, whose unresolved complaints about the new voting machines were the last item on the agenda of the outgoing Shelby County Commission and will undoubtedly be brought up again in September during the first meeting of a newly elected commission.

And there is John Harvey, the sheriff's deputy-cum-computer maven, whose researches into irregularities were instrumental in bringing about the voiding of last year's District 29 state Senate contest between Ophelia Ford, the presumed winner, and Terry Roland.

On his "Voting in Memphis" blog, Harvey noted the concluding item of the official post-election audit report: "We were unable to compare the increases in the protective counter per the certificate of the results to the public count per machine for the following wards and precincts due to the end of day numbers not being recorded on the certificate of results."

There follows a list of 45 precincts across Memphis and Shelby County. What the auditors seem to be saying, in almost impenetrable language, is that errors cannot be ruled out in the vote tabulations in those 45 precincts.

The Diebold Issue

As for those conspiracy theorists who continue to suspect the Diebold Corporation's voting machines, Duckett and the other commissioners provide at least a partial degree of support -- voting unanimously to consider possible litigation against Diebold. That lawsuit would be based on the fact that Diebold oversold the commission on the effectiveness of both its hardware and its software.

"I don't think Diebold or any of us realized the magnitude of this ballot," was how Democrat Duckett expressed the general discontent early in last week's meeting. An hour and a half later, after specifics of the company's failings had received an airing, the conversation became somewhat less indulgent.

Notably, the PC cards provided by Diebold had to be reprogrammed for each voter instead of automatically meshing with the commission's data-base of registered Shelby County voters.

"When Diebold was selling us this program, they said it would be seamless, and then when it came time for election, they said, 'Whoops, it's not seamless,'" according to the scornful assessment of Republican commissioner Rich Holden.

One consequence of the glitch was that during the two weeks of early voting, when voters were not restricted to their home precincts, an unspecified number of voters found themselves confronted with ballot choices that belonged to a district other than their own.

Faced with the prospect of such problems recurring during early voting for the November 7th election, Johnson tentatively arranged with the Accenture Corporation to provide a software solution that would integrate the commission's database with individual voter cards in a one-step process.

Problem is, Accenture wants $28,000 to do the deed, and commission members felt that Diebold should be liable for that expense. With time a factor, the commission unanimously voted to authorize a go-ahead for Accenture, coupled with both a request that Diebold pay for the process and a threat to sue if they don't.

Resolving the Appeals

The defective software provided by Diebold may be at the root of the appeals filed by four losing candidates: Juvenile Court candidate Shep Wilbun, Probate Court clerk candidate Sondra Becton, Shelby County clerk candidate Otis Jackson, and Criminal Court clerk candidate Vernon Johnson.

Or a still unexplained oversight problem could be the issue. The Election Commission consensus was that the final boxes read were checked in and accounted for but, for reasons not yet explained, not uploaded into the system when initially received.

It could merely have been, as Duckett suggested, a question of the order in which election personnel at the precinct level did things -- whether the tapes were dated before or after they were prepared for transport, the matter of drive time to the commission headquarters, the length of check-in lines once they were delivered, and so forth.

Complicating the issue of resolving the appeals further is the fact that, as commission attorney Monice Hagler Tate explained, Chancellor Walter Evans, who issued a temporary restraining order against disturbing the election materials (both hardware and software), had recused himself from the case, leaving it to the state Supreme Court to appoint a judge.

With the hearing on Evans' order set for this week, Hagler said, assistant county attorney Danny Presley had advised that the hearing would likely have to be continued.

Looking Ahead to November

So long as Evans' restraining order is in effect and the election appeals remain unresolved, the Diebold machines and the voter cards used in August are tied up and cannot be made ready to use in the November election. On the software count alone, that could mean the emergency requisition of as many as 1,000 of the computerized voter cards.

As for the difficulty of extracting useful precinct figures, this, too, is a bone being picked with Diebold, which should, Holden suggested, be able to facilitate aligning voting results so they can be reported precinct-by-precinct in real time, at least unofficially.

As of now, this would be "hard to do on the Web site," said James Johnson. Even the rough totals released on CD by the commission require a complicated and laborious manual parsing -- "impractical" for reporting purposes, as Duckett conceded.

At one point in last week's meeting, Duckett reviewed one of the several problems connected with the election process and said, "Houston, we have a problem." Change "Houston" to "Memphis and Shelby County," and many would agree.

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